Are theater tickets ever an impulse buy? Not for something you'd really want to see, on Broadway or off. But are there destinations Off Broadway that draw theatergoers on the strength of their reputation for booking interesting, rewarding work? That seems to be the dream that animates a handful of emerging Off Broadway houses, which are setting themselves apart by developing audiences who trust the programmers' taste and by keeping admission prices closer to the cost of a movie ticket than to a four-star dinner.
THE CULTURE PROJECT, 45 Bleecker Street, East Village; (212) 253-9983.
59E59, 59 East 59th Street; (212) 279-4200. "His Royal Hipness Lord
Buckley in the Zam Zam Room" and "The Park Avenue Whirl," both through Dec.
31. Carlos Lacámara's "Havana Bourgeois," Jan. 8 through Feb. 4. Joe Basque's
"Ping Pong Diplomacy," Jan. 10 through Feb. 5. "Nobody's Lunch," a political
satire by the Civilians, Jan. 19 through Feb. 5. Primary Stages restarts its
ARS NOVA, 511 West 54th Street; (212) 868-4444. Judy Gold's solo show
"God Doesn't Pay Rent Here," Jan. 18-Feb. 12. Opening April 1: a straight-play
OHIO THEATER, 66 Wooster Street, SoHo; (212) 868-4444. Clubbed Thumb's production of a new play by Rinne Groff, "What Then," previews, Jan. 7; runs Jan. 9-28.
"I think every night there are a couple of people who walk in and say, 'Well, if I can't see this, I'll see that,' " said Peter Tear, executive producer at 59E59 Theaters, a three-stage complex in a sleek Midtown high-rise. "I never guarantee that everything's wonderful all the time, but my goal has always been to present a level of work that would make 59E59 a destination Off Broadway." Less than two years old, 59E59 has landed the resident company Primary Stages, which put on Terrence McNally's "Dedication," and the recent off-night hit "In the Continuum," and began a summer festival, Brits Off Broadway.
Producers at Ars Nova mention similar aspirations, though they have only one stage, a spare 99-seat space in a West 54th Street office building, which since opening in 2002 has housed one-off evenings of alternative comedy and a late-night live talk show, "Creation Nation," more often than full runs.
"We always thought the dream would be that one day someone could say, 'I don't know what's playing at Ars Nova tonight, but I know that if I go over, something interesting is going to be up,' " said Jenny Wiener, who shares producing duties with Jon Steingart and Jason Eagan.
And at the Culture Project in SoHo, the artistic director, Allan Buchman, has made his 199-seat main stage a contender partly by attracting celebrities to perform politically engaged work. In 2002 he had a rotating cast of well-known actors read "The Exonerated," a play by Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen about the death penalty, and ran the show for 18 months. He cast public figures, including Desmond Tutu and Samantha Power, in a fungible role in last year's "Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom," and invited audiences to stick around for a postshow discussion about the issues raised onstage.
"I think of this as 'salon theater,' " Mr. Buchman said. "I want the audience to be an important part of the work."
The Culture Project's current show is "RFK," starring its author, Jack Holmes; its previous long-running hit, Sarah Jones's "Bridge and Tunnel," will transfer to Broadway in January. For Mr. Buchman's next project, he is again looking beyond his own stage: he plans to organize a citywide festival of political theater next fall, with his SoHo theater as a hub, but not the only stage. Among the projects he is developing is an adaptation of "The Scarlet Letter" by the feminist scholar Carol Gilligan, to star Marisa Tomei, and a collaboration with the Old Vic of London and the Motion Group in which Iraqi and American actors will perform Stravinsky's "Soldier's Tale."
Mr. Buchman is not the only one making an impact beyond his own space. Sir Alan Ayckbourn was among the talent that alighted at 59E59's Brits Off Broadway festival last summer. He came, at Mr. Tear's importuning, to direct his British company in "Private Fears in Public Places," and now the Shubert Organization is planning an Off Broadway run for the spring (though 59E59 is not a partner).
When the playwright Daniel Goldfarb brought his play "Modern Orthodox" to Ars Nova's reading series in 2003, Mr. Steingart and Ms.. Wiener stepped up to mount it at the Off Broadway Dodger Stages, with James Lapine directing a cast that included Jason Biggs, Craig Bierko and Molly Ringwald. Ars Nova has also played host to the comics Julia Sweeney (whose Broadway show "God Said, 'Ha!' " it produced), Ana Gasteyer and Sarah Silverman, and cabaret performers like Justin Bond (of Kiki and Herb) and the musical-theater polymath Seth Rudetsky.
But these spaces measure success less by commercial cachet than by how well they keep up with exciting new work. All of them keep an eye on not only submissions and recommendations but also on offerings at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and one another's work. While each has a different economic model and aesthetic emphasis, all have infrastructure in place to market and offer technical support for everything on their stages, which means they have the prerogative, and the incentive, to choose only work they want to see there, whether or not their name is above the title as producer.
"If you're a theater owner, the dream is that you're the Westside Arts Center, and you have 'I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change' upstairs and 'Jewtopia' downstairs," Mr. Steingart of Ars Nova said. "But for us that's a worst-case scenario, because then the 10 things that are in the queue that want to come in wouldn't get their chance."